Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Friday Grey Matters: The Mind of Alex

One of my favorite authors is Margaret Atwood, the Canadian sci-fi writer who has penned “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Robber Bride,” and “Oryx and Crake.” The first on that list is the book that initially hooked me, but I think “Oryx and Crake” holds a special place on my bookshelf for perhaps the silliest of reasons–it mentions a character who’s obsessed with Alex the parrot. Naturally, I could relate.

Atwood’s mention of Alex in her book made more sense to me when I met Irene Pepperberg, and she mentioned offhand that she was friends with Atwood. What at first seemed a coincidence was actually a charming tribute.

A commentary piece in the New York Times published earlier this week, a eloquent eulogy to Alex, also mentions Atwood as well as Douglas Hofstadter:

In his recent book, “I Am a Strange Loop,” Douglas Hofstadter proposed that the richness of a creature’s mental representations be used to take the measure of its soul.

The unit Dr. Hofstadter whimsically proposed is the “huneker,” named for James Huneker, a music critic who wrote that Chopin’s 11th √Čtude, in A minor, (Op. 25) was so majestic that “small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it.”

If your average person’s soulfulness weighs in at 100 hunekers with a hamster down near 10, Alex hovered somewhere above the halfway mark. But there were moments when he seemed to reach for the top.

I do not believe in any spiritual approximation of a soul, however I don’t think that is what Hofstadter was trying to measure, but rather the sum total of a creature’s consciousness, ideas, culture, sense of self, sense of others….the idea of a place in the universe. It is fascinating that while Dr. Pepperberg strove her whole career to study avian communication and learning models through asking specific questions of Alex, perhaps the most interesting questions are ones that cannot be posed directly. Could a parrot be trained to report mental states, like Kanzi or Koko the apes?

The extent to which my own African Grey, Pepper, can do so is minimal, but I haven’t really trained him to do so either. For example, he has learned to tell me when he’s scared by saying, “Its all right” over and over, because it was what I used to say to him when he was obviously scared of something as a small bird. He associates that sound with feeling fear, and only says it when presented with fearsome stuffs (to a bird, this might be a new toy, or a new place, or accidentally crashing into the couch).

One of the most heartbreaking memories I have, and this I am sure will follow me until I die, was when Pepper became tangled up in the string that hangs off the blinds. I had never thought of it as a danger to him, but one day he managed to get ensnared in it and, terrified, attempted to fly away. This only got him more and more entangled in it until his feathers were being pulled to weird angles, which I’m sure was very painful. I was trying desperately to free him, but he was confused and in pain, and tried to bite me whenever I came near. I was incredibly panicked. Finally he stopped struggling and screeching and just hung there pitifully saying to himself, “Its all right, its all right, its all right.” At that moment I was bawling and went and got scissors and immediately cut the blinds string and then untangled him. He calmed down before I did, as I had had a small glance into how awful it must feel to see your child in pain, and feel helpless to know what to do. He crawled up my arm, put his beak near my cheek as he often does, and said, “Its all right.” I stopped and looked at him, he didn’t seem upset or scared anymore, or in pain. In fact, he seemed fine. But then it struck me, maybe he was saying it to me? Sure, probably a stretch, and lots of other explanations, but at that moment it truly seemed that Pepper had sensed my fear and sadness and simply recognized it the only way he knew how.

The end of the NY Times article is quite sad, asking “What was it like to be Alex that last night in his cage? We’ll never know whether there really was a mind in there — slogging its way from the absence of a cork-nut to the absence of Alex, grasping at the zeroness of death.”

However, I think that one day we will know, perhaps not what Alex thought in his final moments, but what are the content of other minds, filled with other thoughts? I believe we will have Alex to thank for that, and Irene Pepperberg, and anyone else that keeps asking questions that perhaps aren’t easily or straightforwardly answered, but are so very, very interesting and beautiful.

Comments

  1. #1 Charlie (Colorado)
    September 21, 2007

    Did I need to be sitting here at my desk crying this morning?

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    September 21, 2007

    Awww, sorry Charlie. :(

  3. #3 Homie Bear
    September 21, 2007

    That’s a beautiful story. I recently read The Octopus and the Orangutan by Eugene Linden, which is the second of his books to explore similar issues- how self-aware are animals? I have no problem believing that they are more so than we generally give them credit for.

  4. #4 Warren
    September 21, 2007

    Hofstaeder’s comments make me think we need a refinement of language when we end up left with words like “soul” to describe complex intelligence — and then have to explain we’re not talking about the metaphysical illusion, but something presumably more concrete.

    Worse is the idea that there are indeed intelligences around us, many of them considerably more subtle than most of us want to admit — and we’re busily exploiting or erasing them from the planet.

    I find it interesting that, despite the coverage Alex received in some circles, despite his obvious awareness, there are still plenty who would scoff at the very idea of a bird with feelings, emotions, connections to the world beyond eating, sleeping and pooping. I suspect in some cases this is little more than projection on the part of the doubters.

    BTW, the new banner is pretty, and makes me wonder: Has Pepper seen it yet, and has he recognized that there’s a parrot in there?

  5. #5 Charlie (Colorado)
    September 21, 2007

    So much for my macho image.

  6. #6 Charlie (Colorado)
    September 21, 2007

    Okay, I’m carefully avoiding re-reading, or even thinking, about the end of that post, but I’ve got a question: how did we get the notion that animals *don’t* have “souls”, or feelings, or empathy?

  7. #7 Chromosome Crawl
    September 21, 2007

    I have no doubt that animals are more sentient than given credit for. My Mother used her Rottweilers for pet therapy, and one of the dogs REALLY enjoyed going to do therapy sessions. He would get very excited when he had his “therapy collar” (a nylon web one as compared to the everyday chain one) put on and would get more excited than usual when he then would “go car” to a new place. Another of our Rotts stunned my brother & I when he got offended when we were laughing once. Something silly happened, and we were laughing hard and pointing at him. This look came over his face and he went into his crate and sat facing the rear of the crate.

    I have had migraines for several years now, and once I went to my parents to sleep a particularly bad one off. One of the Rotts came up to the bed I was laying on, put his nose under my elbow and sat there quietly, occasionally whimpering. (Reminds me of the seizure dogs).

    Finally, as my mother lay dying in hospital, my brother & I were wondering waht we needed to do to let the dogs know she wouldn’t be coming back (one of the dogs was incredibly bonded with her). We had had her sitting on a blanket from home, and we brought that blanket back, and held it out for the dogs to smell. Rudy (‘her’ dog) came up, took one wiff, backed up and looked me in the eye with a look I have never seen a dog give. Since the blanket seemed to upset them so, I took it in Mom’s bedroom and put it on the bed, only to find a few minutes later that Rudy had gone and gotten the blanket and was carrying it around.

    I have no doubt that Pepper was trying to comfort you!

  8. #8 Warren
    September 21, 2007

    I’ve got a question: how did we get the notion that animals *don’t* have “souls”, or feelings, or empathy?
    Posted by: Charlie (Colorado)

    I think one need look no further than Western religion and its teaching that “mankind” was given “dominion” over the animals (indeed, all of Earth*), was the “special creation” of some “god”, and was the only species specifically given a “soul”.

    That kind of toxic, selfish approach to life is probably a key reason we continue to see rapacious and wastrel behavior, even though we know it’s killing us all.

    ==

    * Gen. 1:26. The word is a mistranslation that has persisted for as long as the KJV. The actual word used is closer in meaning to “stewardship” or possibly “caretaker status” — which is not the same thing at all. A transliteration called “The Message” holds the passage thus:

    God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them / reflecting our nature / So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, / the birds in the air, the cattle, / And, yes, Earth itself, / and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”

    This is so radically at variance from what virtually every other Bible translation says that it’s actually probably heretical, at least to some.

    FWIW, I’m an atheist. I just happen to know what I’m rejecting, and why.

  9. #9 Drugmonkey
    September 21, 2007

    “there are still plenty who would scoff at the very idea of a bird with feelings, emotions, connections to the world beyond eating, sleeping and pooping. I suspect in some cases this is little more than projection on the part of the doubters.”

    oh yes? And what about the projection and wishful thinking on the part of the TruBelieverz?

    It is not so much that skeptics “scoff” at the notion that animals have experiences beyond “eating, sleeping and pooping”. Skeptics just don’t project a bunch of human quality phenomena onto animals.

    It took how many years of intensive incremental training and interaction to get this bird up to the point of “language” function? where there is still a credible debate over whether it is language, i.e., including novel formulations, grammatical complexities, action concepts and the like. You can day the same for the GSU chimps, the Premack studies, Koko, etc.

    Now compare this to language acquisition in the average 2 yr old human. Really. With your most scientist of hats on.

    It is not the same ballpark. It is not the same city. It is not even the same hemisphere.

    Some nonhuman animals have very large and complicated behavioral capabilities if they are trained. They learn things even when you don’t think that you are training them. This does mean they express capabilities similar to the more unique human capabilities.

  10. #10 Drugmonkey
    September 21, 2007

    make that “does NOT mean” of course

  11. #11 PhysioProf
    September 21, 2007

    Nice post. I don’t know about “consciousness”, but there is no question that mammals and birds experience pleasure, pain, anticipation, and fear, and can clearly communicate those experiences to their conspecifics and to human beings.

  12. #12 Warren
    September 21, 2007

    Well, Drugmonkey, if your measure of any animal’s intelligence (including that of humans) is limited to whether you can have a conversation with that creature, I’d suggest you’re being a bit too restrictive in your outlook.

    Verbose nonhuman animals aside, there is quite a lot of evidence for complex intelligence, and possibly even abstract thinking (strategizing, for instance) in chimpanzees, bonobos and bottlenosed porpoises. They might not be able to sit down at the table and sustain an intelligent, witty chat on the state of world politics, but that doesn’t suggest genuine animal stupidity such as we might arguably find in fish or arthropods.

    There’s no projection of “human-quality phenomena” required to see that; just the ability to see (for example) that in-group bonding, gregariousness, complex vocalizations and even out-of-species altruism are not the sole bourne of h. sapiens any more than they belong exclusively to t. truncatus or p. paniscus.

    It is not “wishful thinking” to see this; it is the ability to recognize fact.

  13. #13 Warren
    September 21, 2007

    Not to follow up on my own comment, but I remembered that I posted a while ago a discussion on abortion that might be obliquely germane here.

    In it I argued that the idea we could fix an arbitrary meaning to where life begins is simply invalid; I’d suggest that the same is possibly true of intelligence.

  14. #14 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 22, 2007

    Awww.

    make that “does NOT mean” of course

    Actually, the first text was fine here since they were learning out of training just as we do.

    The problem here is “unique” capabilities. According to your own criteria, you have to establish that and/or quality differences – and we have no reason to believe in either, quite the contrary. Meanwhile from current observations these characteristics seem to fall on a continous scale.

    We should also not forget that much of what humans do is in a cultural context that evolved over 100 of 1000′s of years or more. To entangle the capacity in biological traits from the context is difficult. (As you describe.)

  15. #15 Philip
    September 23, 2007

    Greys have more going on upstairs than one might think at first glance. Years ago our Timneh (Psittacus erithacus timneh – the other grey subspecies for those not familiar) named Aspen was acting up in some forgotten way. My wife decided that he had to go back in his cage – like sending a child to their room, or putting a dog in the garage. After she did so, Aspen said “Sorry, I’m sorry.” which had the predictable effect of freaking us out!

    He had not said those words before and hasn’t said them much since. We did figure out that as part of my wife’s usual morning routine she would put Aspen in his cage before leaving for work and would say “Sorry Aspen” and lock the cage door.

    I believe that there was some small rudimentary spark of the concept of remorse in Aspen’s feathered head, at least in the sense that this was a time to go into a cage that was not a willing one by both parties, but necessary. And that at such times the sound sequence “I’m sorry” is the one to make.

    These birds are animals and their intelligence is vastly dwarfed by a humans. Some grey owners like to say that they have the intelligence of a 5 year old (or more) which I can say is utter crap, having had two 5 year olds. But they are damn smart animals and there are wheels turing in those small feathered heads. And it’s enjoyable for both the person and the grey to be with each other. We both are out of Africa after all!

    Philip

  16. #16 Drugmonkey
    September 23, 2007

    “According to your own criteria, you have to establish that and/or quality differences – and we have no reason to believe in either, quite the contrary.

    and your evidence for this? Taking the domain of language, which I will remind Warren above is the central dogma of Alex, there are clear qualitative differences between the best of the non-human animal language demonstrations and your average 2yr old human animal. If you’d like to address the actual evidence instead of “feelings” on the subject, please do. What aspects of what Alex could do IS similar to a human acquiring language?

    Meanwhile from current observations these characteristics seem to fall on a continous scale”
    I’m open to the possibility. Trouble is, we have disparate datapoints and in order to accomodate Alex, Koko, GSU LRC chimpanzees/bonobos, etc on the same graph as humans we have an extreme nonlinear function with no intervening points. Graphing all species “communication” we have one unbelievably distinct outlier, namely H. sapiens. There is no legitimate way to place the available evidence on one “continuous” scale using this in the colloquial sense which you are apparently using it.

    “These birds are animals and their intelligence is vastly dwarfed by a humans. Some grey owners like to say that they have the intelligence of a 5 year old (or more) which I can say is utter crap, having had two 5 year olds. But they are damn smart animals and there are wheels turing in those small feathered heads. And it’s enjoyable for both the person and the grey to be with each other.”

    That’s all I’m sayin’. Well, that and, don’t misrepresent the actual data because you have a theological belief in certain similarities between humans and parrots.

  17. #17 Shelley Batts
    September 23, 2007

    Taking the domain of language, which I will remind Warren above is the central dogma of Alex

    Neither myself nor Pepperberg claims Alex is using language, but I think I can speak for both of us that he can successfully communicate some intent, or understanding, both of which is more sophisticated than one might expect. More recent research with crows, scrub jays, etc, also illustrates that we have likely underestimated the problem-solving capabilities of avians. During speech acquisition, Greys go through what might be crudely called a babbling phase where they first learn the tone and prosody of a word/phrase and later correct its pronunciation with feedback. They also display a sort of critical period, during the first few years, which exposure to speech/music drastically increases their likelihood of being a ‘talking bird.’

    This means to me *not* that Greys possess the ability to use language and the mental power of a 4-year-old, but that their neural architecture is flexible enough to bend from its ‘normal’ use in a wild habitat to a captive environment where it can communicate with humans in a rudimentary way. Finding the limits of that flexibility was Pepperberg’s career.

  18. #18 Drugmonkey
    September 24, 2007

    “This means to me *not* that Greys possess the ability to use language and the mental power of a 4-year-old, but that their neural architecture is flexible enough to bend from its ‘normal’ use in a wild habitat to a captive environment where it can communicate with humans in a rudimentary way. Finding the limits of that flexibility was Pepperberg’s career.”

    And yet you more frequently comment critically in response to the position outlined by me than you do in response to the comments that lard the Alex thing up with all sorts of phenomena that go beyond the actual data. It’s been about 15 yrs since I saw Pepperberg and Alex in the flesh but I’ve seen the odd media piece and I imagine the story hasn’t changed much from her end either.

    Yes, when pinned down, when in the appropriate scientific/skeptical audience, Pepperberg and the comparative cog types back down to appropriately limited and caveat-ed speech. Funny how the popular media reports and the subjective impression that most lay audience walk away with is “gee these animals are just like humans”. I exaggerate but only slightly. I mean, have you read the posts and comments around SB on the untimely passing of Alex?

    As scientists we should not be promulgating poor understanding of the data and in fact we should be more proactive in recognizing popular misunderstanding of the science and going out of our way, not to increase this fog, but to clear it. That’s the general point.

    A more specific point is the animal use in research issue. As you are well aware, much of the rationale centers around “animals are much like us, there is no qualitative difference in (pick feature X), thus we are unjustified in using them in research”. If inaccurate depictions of the available scientific evidence are used to support this position… How does this differ at all from the ID/evolution and global warming misuses of data that are the subject of much discussion around SB?

  19. #19 Chuk
    September 24, 2007

    he has learned to tell me when he’s scared by saying, “Its all right” over and over, because it was what I used to say to him when he was obviously scared of something as a small bird.

    Our two-year old (until she got even better at talking) did a similar thing — she would cry “Okay” when she got hurt, because we often said “It’s okay” or “You’re okay” when she got a bump or a scrape.

  20. #20 Shelley Batts
    September 24, 2007

    And yet you more frequently comment critically in response to the position outlined by me than you do in response to the comments that lard the Alex thing up with all sorts of phenomena that go beyond the actual data.

    If I am critical, it is due to your dismissive attitude. Its as silly to throw the baby out with the bathwater as it is to overstate what Alex does. I don’t take the position of calling out people out on either side unless I feel they are being disrepectful. I’m happy to provide the forum for discussion and let the commenters duke it out, if they so wish. In addition, I know I am a bit biased as I have my own Grey, and Irene is a friend. Therefore I do like to post on the topic but I don’t pretend to be as an impartial observer as some.

    It’s been about 15 yrs since I saw Pepperberg and Alex in the flesh but I’ve seen the odd media piece and I imagine the story hasn’t changed much from her end either.

    Drugmonkey, I hope you realize how arrogant and insulting that sounds. Sorry, but reading the odd media piece and extrapolating from someones 15-year-old position does not equate to someone well-informed enough to criticize anyone on this blog for “not being scientific enough”.

    I admit that perhaps a while back I was overly slap-happy when it came to what Alex could and could not do, and how what he *was doing* could be termed. If anything, it is the interactions I’ve had with Irene which have brought me back down to Earth. Just because Alex *doesn’t* use language, does not equate to his studies being uninteresting or worthless (in fact, she just got an NSF grant).
    As for the animal rights issue, at no time has Irene or myself ever stated that Greys are “just like humans.” Thats just silly.

  21. #21 Drugmonkey
    September 24, 2007

    Not “read the odd media piece” but “seen”. As in the ones that show Alex doing his thing, interview Pepperberg and the like. Most recently the brief re-hashes on Alex’s demise. Not that IP has total control over what the media choose to present. Far from it. But in my view she seems okay with the “usual” presentation, partly because she keeps doing them and the messages are relatively consistent. It is not “arrogant” to observe this. Nor by the way is it “dismissive” to be a student of this area of science for a relatively long period of time, work in a field that has direct bearing on the sort of claims being made and to come to a different conclusion about the “evidence”. It also helps, quite frankly, for someone with such a scientific interest or background to be very closely involved with human children who are acquiring language in one sustained (i.e., care provision, not just 30 min lab sessions per kid) context or another. What is “arrogant” and “dismissive” is to attack the motivations and/or personality of the person making comment as opposed to addressing the points and/or evidence.

    And as I said, I do see Pepperberg and similar comparative cog types being very careful about their presentations…in the right settings. I.e., in the presence of experts and skeptics in the arenas of psycholinguistics and experimental psychology. Not so much in other arenas.

    What is most dismaying is despite whatever the true beliefs or motivations may be, the impression of the science that is conveyed to the public is as I represent it and as your commenters (and other posts/comments elsewhere in SB land) express it. As do you yourself in your posts, frankly. That this is somehow human-like language (or emotion or awareness or …pick your representation).

    It matters little to me whether you or Pepperberg herself are or are not pro or against animal research. This is not the point. The point is the use to which the science is being put and whether it is being misused, mischaracterized, misrepresented or not. And how the scientists who are involved in the work should respond. Me, I think they (including you as a popularizer of the work) have a responsibility to communicate a real view of the science as effectively as possible. Even if that means vigorously contradicting the feel-good stuff which is poorly supported. or perhaps the problem is that you do in fact communicate your real view and the above limited version expressed in the comment is not, in fact, your actual view?

    “Sure, probably a stretch, and lots of other explanations, but at that moment it truly seemed that Pepper had sensed my fear and sadness and simply recognized it the only way he knew how.”

    Sorry but the takeaway here is not the caveated version. It is the TruBelieverz version. Look, if the perspective here was pet-blogging, no biggie. Lots of people like to talk about the emotional complexities of pet ownership. it’s the melding and confusion between pet-blogging and comparative-cog science blogging that is the issue.

    I did not say uninteresting or worthless, did I? And I’m quite happy she got a grant actually (although I will say that getting a grant funded or not is not really proof of “worth” or “interest” or lack thereof). Even if I did think her work was “worthless” better that than some other uses of our tax dollars. I’m interested in the science, that should be obvious. Interested is not, however, the same as TruBeliever of everything published or represented. Frankly I feel that most of the available science in this area is flawed because of some fairly interesting, and I would say theological, orientations of the practitioners.

  22. #22 Shelley
    September 25, 2007

    Drugmonkey, some of my posts about Greys, especially the ones in which I talk about my own pet, ARE petblogging. In this post I made no claims as to what Pepper was actually thinking/feeling but rather how my relationship with Pepper affected how I viewed his response. It was a subjective anecdote, spun off Alex reminisces in the New York Times, that should have been clear.

    I can tell you clearly that Irene is *not* 100% ok with how the popular press presents Alex et al, however up until now she has been reliant on good press to continue her work. Despite the occasional Guggenheim and other small grant, the bulk of her support comes from her private foundation, The Alex Foundation. To that effect, press releases and being tolerant of many interviews and talks is part of whats let her keep her head above water in the absence of federal funding. Its a double-edged sword though–it popularizes her work, but also often misinterprets it. To the effect that I am somewhat sentimental about Greys, it is because I *have* one. As I mentioned in my last post, I agree that I am not the most objective observer and my thoughts and opinions on the subject are by no means the definitive word on the subject. I trust that people are intelligent enough to seek out other sources if they disagree, and thats fine. The comment above is my view, although as I said, I am also affected by my relationship with a Grey and the belief that Alex was engaging in communication.

    It seems that if you equate language as interchangeable with awareness and emotion, and expect me *not* to petblog my pet, we are at an impasse. I certainly do respect your right to take issue with my method of blogging, although it is my perogative to do so as I see fit, be it blogging about Pepper or whatever.

  23. #23 Philip
    September 25, 2007

    Sometimes a scientist in animal studies can be passionate about their subjects in the popular media *and* do good science, Jane Goodall is the archetype for this. The research into Alex seems to have shown something that wasn’t known before, something valuable. Isn’t that the definition of good science?

    Sure, many people have extrapolated abilities that aren’t there from the research, but heck some people think they can psychically communicate with their greys. There are many levels of woo, and Dr. Pepperberg can’t be blamed for it.

    I have two greys, an 11 1/2 year old Congo and an 11 year old Timneh. They are surprisingly smart animals even discounting my natural inclination to wrongly attribute human level intention to behaviors.

    Philip

  24. #24 Trip the Space Parasite
    September 28, 2007

    Save me a spot in the Sensitive Guy corner, Charlie. I was at work when I read Shelley’s first post about Alex’s obit with his last words, and it’s a good thing it was almost quitting time, because I don’t think I would have been much use for quite a while after that.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.